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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington voters on their own to decide ballot advisory measures

Voters seeking extensive information from the usual sources on five statewide advisory measures may be out of luck.

There are no high-powered campaigns for or against the nonbinding Advisory Votes 3 through 7. No statements pro or con in the state Voters’ Pamphlet. No websites with videos or lists of endorsers.

Tim Eyman, whose 2007 initiative set up the process of giving voters a chance to express an opinion on taxes the Legislature approves, said the measures give voters quick information on what taxes were raised, how much they cost and which legislators voted for or against.

The measures – costing about $130,000 for the printing of extra pages in this year’s Voters’ Pamphlet – are an inexpensive way to provide legislators with public feedback, he said. (Note: An earlier version of this story had the wrong cost for printing based on an outdated estimate.)

Those opinions are meaningless, said Andrew Villeneuve of the Northwest Progressive Institute, a longtime Eyman critic. The measures are essentially “push polls” designed to influence voters while taking up valuable space on the front side of the ballot.

“Like all push polls, Eyman advisory votes consist of loaded questions that suggest their own responses,” he said. The institute is considering litigation to challenge the advisory votes. Although the state constitution sets up several methods for citizens to enact or cancel legislation, it doesn’t call for “nonbinding plebiscites,” he said.

Under Initiative 960, which passed in 2007, any tax increase approved by the Legislature must be put to an advisory vote that November. I-960 also contained a requirement that all tax increases must pass both chambers with a two-thirds vote, but that was struck down as unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. The court didn’t say anything about the advisory votes, however.

I-960 spells out the language that goes on the ballot – that the Legislature eliminated, imposed or extended a particular tax without a vote of the people – then provides the state Office of Financial Management’s estimate of what the tax will raise as a cost dedicated to “government spending.” It limits the Voters’ Pamphlet to the ballot wording, the 10-year tax breakdown and the vote totals in the Legislature.

Last year, two tax increases approved by the Legislature, for interest on residential loans and for some petroleum products, were the subjects of advisory votes. Voters said both should be repealed. Neither was.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond, said the results of those measures, coupled with strong support for a new demand to require supermajorities on tax legislation, reinforced for him that “the voting public was not real receptive to new taxes” at a time when some people were saying a recovering economy might generate that support. He acknowledges the wording on the ballot probably pushes voters toward rejecting the taxes.

“It’d be great if we could have some kind of explanation for these taxes” in the Voters’ Pamphlet, like the pro and con statements that accompany initiatives and referendums, Hill added.

Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he can’t recall the results even coming up in budget discussions. He also believes the ballot language is designed to get a negative response from voters who get “less information than a tweet” on the reasons the Legislature approved the tax.

Asked the chances that the Legislature will repeal any of the taxes based on the advisory vote, Hunter was blunt: “None.”

On this year’s ballot:

Vote 3 involves the repeal of a tax credit for people who lease publicly owned property, estimated to raise about $2 million over the next 10 years. It passed the Senate 47-2 and the House 91-6.

Vote 4 involves a new excise tax levied on small commuter air carriers who don’t pay a property tax, estimated to raise $500,000 over the next 10 years. It passed the Senate 41-8 and the House 71-22.

Vote 5 involves the extension of a premium tax on some pediatric dental services, but has no cost estimate because OFM couldn’t come up with one. It passed the Senate 47-1 and the House 95-0.

Vote 6 involves the end of a sales tax exemption for some landline telephone services that mobile phone services didn’t have. It’s estimated to raise $397 million over 10 years. This was heavily supported by the telecommunications industry, and was a key part of budget negotiations before passing the Senate 36-11 and the House 77-15.

Vote 7 involves the extension of the state estate tax on estates of more than $4 million, estimated to raise $478 million over the next 10 years. It’s an attempt to address a ruling of the state Supreme Court on problems with the estate tax system and was hotly debated, particularly provisions that make it retroactive for some estates. It passed the Senate 30-19 and the House 53-33.

While the first three moved through the Legislature with relatively little discussion, the last two were subject to significant debate. Without the tax change mentioned in Vote 6, the state was facing a liability of hundreds of millions of dollars for the uneven way it was taxing telecom services, Hill said. The Supreme Court’s ruling on the estate tax created an inequity the Legislature tried to fix, although some of the opponents said it was guaranteeing the state will be back in court with the retroactivity provision that may be unconstitutional.